This weekend Bobby Valentine spoke clearly about Daniel Bard entering 2012 spring training looking to be stretched out as a starter. While many had speculated about this possibility there was no clear final decision until now. This decision answers some questions about the two spots open after injuries to John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka, but also raises some questions as well.
Recent attempts to move young arms from the pen to the rotation or vice versa have been dangerous as seen with Jonathan Papelbon, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain or Felix Doubront. These injuries seem to be from repeated adjustment to different roles and usually happen after 2-3 changes. If Bard is not successful as a starter the Red Sox will need to be very cautious in returning him to the reliever role.
The history of Bard as a starter is not very encouraging. His last game started was in 2007 during his first year in minor league ball. He threw 75 innings in A and High A ball, but with a K/9 of 5.64 he was not the Bard we know with a 99 mile per hour fastball and strikeout rate over one per inning. He was moved to the pen in 2008 and has dominated since with strikeout rates in the teens for the next few seasons.
Even as a mediocre starter he would be more valuable to the team, but his history shows someone much worse than mediocre and his walk rate as both a starter and a reliever demands someone who can strikeout nearly a batter an inning. If he cannot and continues to walk 4 or more batters every nine innings he will not only take Matsuzaka’s place in the rotation, but be the next Matsuzaka.
Bard will no longer be able to throw as hard as he will need to conserve his arm for 6+ innings. With a 95-96 mile per hour fastball he will need to develop a third pitch to throw. Currently Bard throws a fastball over 70 percent of the time and his slider. He also mixes in a changeup, but so far that pitch has mainly been a pitch to keep hitters honest and needs more work.
You don’t have to look far for pitchers like Bard who have been successful in this switch. Former Red Sox pitcher Justin Masterson mainly throws a sinking fastball and slider and hs largely eliminated his changeup even as a starter. He gets a few more groundballs than Bard with his sinking action, but could be a model for him as he has previously struggled with walks.
Masterson has had more seasoning as a starter with 36 games started in the minors compared to Bard’s 22, making his return to the rotation difficult to judge. It’s tough to condemn him for 75 innings with a poor strikeout rate when it was his first season and it was also five years ago. It’s highly unlikely he doubled his K/9 just by moving to the pen. If I had to set a realistic outlook for Bard would be 20-25 games started with a K/9 between 7-8 and a BB/9 between 2.5-3.5. This looks a lot like Justin Masterson and depending on his groundball rates his ERA should be around 4.00 or better.
I was not a big fan of this move initially, but Bard could be a solid answer to the rotation issues and is a much better choice than Aceves for the number 4 spot. If he does struggle thought the Red Sox must think long and hard about the consequences of returning him to the pen. The Red Sox now require one more arm for the rotation and plenty of arms to fill the pen as they have lost their setup and closer, but benefit financially by filling the rotation spot on the cheap.